Sharing a bed with your baby was once popular with parents, but, thanks to a plethora of headlines about parents smothering their baby during sleep, it’s now being actively discouraged.
Hardly a week goes by now when there isn’t an alarming headline in the media about a parent falling asleep on a sofa or in bed and wakening to find their baby dead beside them.
For many years, sharing a bed with your baby or infant was considered ‘normal’ behaviour in many cultures, and despite recent negative headlines, it’s still commonly practised in Western society, with statistics showing that in countries such as England, almost half of all newborn babies bedshare with their parents at some time, with similar or higher rates at three months of age reported in Ireland (21 per cent), Austria (30 per cent) and Sweden (65 per cent).
One of the reasons why bedsharing was so popular was because of the benefits it brought to both mother and child contact:
- increased infant skin temperature
- stabilised heart rate
- reduction in crying
- increased milk production
Other studies, meanwhile, have shown possible psychological benefits in later life, such as higher self-esteem and fewer psychiatric problems in the child.
In the early Noughties, however, a link was identified by various studies between the practice of bedsharing and an increase in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and there was, over time, general agreement amongst researchers that SIDS occurred more often while a baby was sleeping next to its parent than expected. As a result, the dangers of bedsharing hit the headlines in a negative light and experts indicated that the safest place for a baby to sleep during the first six months of its life was in a cot in its parents’ bedroom.
Despite these headlines, many parents chose to continue sharing a bed with their baby – as indicated by the statistics in the opening paragraphs. Over the last few years, however, there has been a raft of ‘mixed messages’ on the practice of bedsharing, with an increasing number of studies now focusing on the issue of parental alcohol and smoking linked with bedsharing.
Let’s take a look at the facts…
Even in previous years when sharing a bed with your baby was recommended, it was only deemed advisable if neither parent was a smoker, nor had consumed alcohol or taken medication of any kind.
And this is where the confusion has arisen.
The introduction of statistics on the use of alcohol and drugs in combination with bedsharing has confused the issue in many people’s minds, with various reports concluding that there were varying degrees of increased risk.
While there was general acceptance that sleeping with a baby was a risk factor for SIDS when sleeping on a sofa in any circumstances, or in a bed if the mother smoked and/or had taken alcohol, different authors have differed as to whether, there was a risk of bedsharing if risk factors such as smoking or alcohol are absent.
In May 2013, BMJ Open published an article entitled ‘Bedsharing when parents do not smoke: is there a risk of SIDS?’ The study featured data from five countries, including Ireland and parts of Europe, and considered the risks associated with bedsharing arrangements. The results confirmed the findings of other studies, which identified an exceedingly high risk of SIDS for infants who bedshared with a mother who had consumed illegal drugs or more than two units of alcohol
The study also concluded that ‘bedsharing for sleep when the parents do not smoke or take alcohol or drugs increases the risk of SIDS’, but, perhaps most importantly, concluded that ‘risks associated with bedsharing are greatly increased when combined with parental smoking, maternal alcohol consumption and/or drug use. A substantial reduction of SIDS rates could be achieved if parents avoided bedsharing.’
Various organisations connected with baby and infant safety, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are unequivocal in their stance on bedsharing, making it quite clear that you shouldn’t fall asleep in bed with your baby if you – or your partner – smoke or have taken alcohol, drugs or medication that makes you sleep more heavily. Nor should you ever fall asleep with your baby on a sofa or an armchair.
Regardless of how longstanding a practice bedsharing has been over the years, nor of how many perceived advantages it can bring for mother-child contact, it would seem that, in light of the research that has been carried out into the practice over the last few decades, it may be better to err on the side of caution and avoid bedsharing altogether to keep your baby as safe as possible.
Recommendations from Health Service Executive (HSE)
* Always place your baby on his or her back to sleep
* Don’t smoke during pregnancy
* Don’t smoke or allow anyone to smoke in the home or in the car.
* The safest place for your baby to sleep at night is in a cot in your room.
* Place your baby with his or her feet to the foot of the cot
* Make sure your baby’s head stays uncovered when asleep
* Don’t let your baby get too hot
* Keep the cot free of soft objects and anything loose or fluffy
* Don’t fall asleep in bed with your baby if you or your partner smoke or have taken alcohol, drugs or medication that makes you sleep more heavily
* Don’t fall asleep in bed with your baby if they are less than three months old, were born prematurely or had a low birth weight (less than 2.5kg or 5.5lbs when born).
* Never fall asleep with your baby on a sofa or an armchair.